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“If he [The Dalai Lama] returns, the political situation will change…and the day of happiness will dawn on Tibet.”
Countries: India, UK
Language: Tibetan w/ English subtitles, English
Starring: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, Jampa Kalsang, Tenzin Jigme
Directors: Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam
Run time: 90 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet 40 years ago, in 1959. Since then, many other Tibetans have joined him in exile, many of them moving to India. Dharamsala, in Northern India, is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama in exile, and that is where Dreaming Lhasa takes place. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso stars as Karma, a gorgeous young woman who travels to Dharamsala to make a film about former political prisoners living in exile and to reconnect with her Tibetan roots. She meets Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk who has come from Tibet to India to search for a missing resistance fighter named Loga to fulfill his mother’s dying wish.
Karma joins up with Dhondup to take part in his quest, and their journey becomes a powerful story of Tibetans living in exile, of their connection to their homeland, and of their extremely complicated interaction with the outside world. The actors in the movie have stories just about as interesting as the story in the movie itself. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso is an American citizen who works for Chevy Chase bank. When the movie was finished, she went back to her bank job. Jampa Kalsang is from Kathmandu, Nepal and seems to be the only experienced actor in the cast.
Also interesting is Tenzin Jigme, who plays…appropriately…a character named Jigme. In a way, he appears to be playing himself. Jigme is a career musician, with his two brothers, in the band JJI Exile Brothers in Dharamsala. Throughout the movie, a band (maybe the same one) plays Tibetan freedom songs. I couldn’t decide whether those songs were cheesy and misguided or powerful and strong. By the end of the film, I still couldn’t decide. I think the songs are supposed to be a little of both. True words, real concepts, but there is a Quixotic feel to a lot of the music and sentiment that in a way comes across as cheesy.
Dreaming Lhasa is populated largely by non-actors, but this really works in its favour. For a film that touches at least briefly on such a long list of historical events and subjects, the stars bring their own life experiences to the screen. Karma is American, seeing Dharamsala for the first time and learning about her Tibetan roots. And so is the actress who plays her. Jigme is a Tibetan born in Dharamsala and knowing nothing but exile in his life. And so too is the actor playing him. The movie touches on the involvement of the CIA in the Tibetan resistance, and the subsequent violent Chinese crackdown. It touches on the attitudes of the exiled Tibetans toward the Dalai Lama and his stance toward the Chinese government. And of course dozens of other subjects.
Dreaming Lhasa a terrific look at an exiled people and their tenuous and awkward existence vis-a-vis the outside world. But it isn’t a documentary, and it’s more than just a list of facts and figures. It’s also a really interesting, really moving film. The relationship between Dhondup and Karma, as they travel together and develop feelings for one another, is genuine and unforced. The interaction between Jigme and Karma is charming. And the end of the film, when they finally find Loga, provides an unexpected yet powerful moment. I would suggest the aftermath of that meeting is a little easy and not as challenging as the rest of the movie, but that’s a pretty small complaint.
Dreaming Lhasa is a wonderful movie about a group of people who don’t make a lot of headlines. It works as a statement film, and as a feature. There are a few special features on the disc, including a short film called rights…and wrongs that is just pictures and video of people and the Tibetan resistance. It works, and it’s strong. There is also a “making of” featurette which doesn’t say much, and an interview with the director and the composer about the soundtrack (which is mostly Tibetan freedom songs and dub reggae). Altogether a very good DVD, Dreaming Lhasa came out July 21st as part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set from First Run Features.